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Weapons System Cyber Security: The New Model for Warfighting (How the Air Force’s Newest Mission Defense Team is Defining Mission Assurance)

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nathan Eckert
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Warfare is in a constant state of evolution. The speed of innovation has defined both what wars look like and their victors. The United States was once unmatched in its ability to innovate, but competitors and potential adversaries have narrowed the gap.


“Diminishing competitive advantage threatens our national security,” said General CQ Brown Jr., U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, in a September 2021 letter to Airmen across the force. “We need both innovative Airmen and their supportive leaders to achieve ‘over, not through’ approaches for the 21st century.”


McConnell's Mission Defense Team (MDT) rose to that challenge and, during the first KC-46A Employment Concept Exercise, executed a game-changing effort to redefine how all military systems integrate and operate—ushering in the next generation of warfighting.


The Defense Department defines information superiority as 'the operational advantage derived from collecting, processing, and disseminating an uninterrupted flow of information while exploiting or denying an adversary's ability to do the same.'


"Info superiority has been the U.S. military's greatest advantage when it comes to warfighting with all other near-peers." said Major Dane Jansson, 22nd Communications Squadron assistant director of operations and exercise MDT mission lead. "Just like in a boxing match, you want to know where their weak points are. It's [about] knowing where to place your hits to do the most damage and eventually win the fight."


Unlike boxing, the information fight doesn't end at twelve rounds. One of the Air Force's newest tools in this battle is the KC-46A Pegasus. The airframe has systems able to provide unmatched data through connections to more extensive DoD networks. These links allow other aircraft without those capabilities to get on-the-spot mission updates from commands that drive those missions. Those connections make the aircraft a critical asset. However, this value makes it a prime target for adversaries to disable or degrade. That's where the Mission Defense Team comes in.


The Airmen of these units are the primary cyber defenders for wings across the Air Force and meet and maintain training qualifications and currency standards the same way an aircrew does. They protect systems near or directly interfaced with larger weapons systems, ensuring they're protected and information gets to the joint and allied forces who need it.


Mission Defense Teams typically function in main operating base environments. However, assets that can employ across the globe, such as the Pegasus, present a dynamic challenge. The Employment Concept Exercise provided McConnell's team with just such a test. In the process, they completed the first off-station MDT mission in Air Force history.


"This mission is the first heard of any mission defense team, [and] we were the third in the Air Force that's reached initial operational capability status," said Jansson. "It's been a unique challenge coming out here, but one we tackled really well and got up and got up and running in pretty much record time."


Protecting the aircraft and supporting systems from a contingency environment demonstrated to Air Mobility Command, Air Force and Joint leaders at all levels that the KC-46A is confidently employable in combat operations. It also showcased the situational awareness the Pegasus can provide to multi-domain warfighting is secure and prepared to safeguard America's unparalleled information superiority.


The cyber teams that keep the Air Force at the forefront require infrastructure to operate and are at their most efficient when they're familiar with the networks they're defending. This is the difficulty that comes with mobility.


"You have to bring your innovative talents with you." Jansson stated. "This was a first in the amount of people [and] equipment we brought. So, we're definitely pathfinding."


McConnell's MDT completing this mission will forever change how weapons platforms are employed from anywhere in the world. Because of it, a mobile team of cyber experts, whose preservation of key military systems allows dominance across all domains of warfare, will now be a necessary addition to any forward deployment.


"It's going to help us know how to employ our system in a variety of different environments," Jansson noted. "Ultimately, it's going to make us, faster, better, more lethal."